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Adverb Abuse starring… Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean

April 6, 2022

I’ll get to the adverb abuse in a moment.

I intended to finish Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean. I bought it for $3.00. If I spend my own money on a book, I intend on reading the whole thing. I remember several friends in the 1970s reading old Alistair MacLean paperbacks like The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare and proclaiming how great they were.

For some reason, I was a bit skeptical. These same friends also really liked Hogan’s Heroes.

Anyway, I have a thing for old paperback novels right now. I went through a phase where I was having a tough time concentrating on fiction, but ever since I’ve started buying cheap old paperbacks again, I’ve been reading (almost) voraciously. I even liked From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming far more than I thought I would a few weeks ago.

Despite my rediscovered love for old paperback books, I stopped reading Where Eagles Dare after about 100 pages. It was way too outlandish, even by my standards. Too many close calls, harrowing escapes, and false alarms on every page. Characters handling trauma way too calmly. Double agents, triple agents, quadruple agents.

At some point governments have to wonder if they can trust their double/triple agents. Who do you hire to keep track of the double/triple agents? Another double triple agent?

And then there were the adverbs. As a former English teacher, I usually defend adverbs. A lot of writers claim that they dislike adverbs and consider overuse of adverbs as a sign of weak writing. My philosophy is that the adverb is a major part of speech; what’s the point of having a major part of speech if we’re not going to use it?

But then Alistair MacLean showed me exactly how not to use an adverb. All of the examples below are from one page early in the book. Don’t worry about the context, though. Everybody turns out to be a double or triple agent agent anyway, so it doesn’t matter what they’re saying.


“I can’t help what you think,” Smith said kindly, patting her on the back.

“Language, language,” Smith said severely.

She said curiously: “What on earth excuse did you give for coming back up here?”

“It’s still inside Sergeant Herrod’s tunic,” Smith said sombrely. “He’s up here, dead.”

“Don’t tell me,” Mary said resignedly. “I’m only a little girl. I suppose you know what you’re doing.”

“I wish to God I did,” Smith said feelingly.


That’s all on one page. Where Adverbs Dare is an entire novel filled with this. Maybe it wasn’t the entire novel. Maybe the author stopped writing like this after page 100, and I didn’t see it because I stopped reading, but I’m pretty sure it’s like this the entire book.

Where Eagles Dare was published in 1967. Maybe this type of adverb usage was normal in the middle-to-late 1960s, but I doubt it. I’ve read a bunch of books from that period, and I don’t recall seeing this many -ly adverbs used so frequently so many times so consistently in one novel.

As much as I defend adverbs, even I have to admit this is poor. It’s not the reason that I stopped reading Where Adverbs Dare, but the overuse of -ly adverbs didn’t help.


I could never be a double/triple agent. I’m horrible at lying. My ears get red.

Or maybe I can make my ears turn red, even when I’m telling the truth, and I just pretend that I’m bad at lying so that people can trust me.

Or maybe I just say that I can turn my ears red at will so that when I lie I can hide the fact that I’m bad at lying. But then my ears would turn red.

I just confused myself now. That just proves that I’d be a double/triple agent. Or maybe I’m just pretending that I confused myself.


What do you think? Were any of these -ly adverbs necessary? Did they add anything to the sentence (as far as you can tell)? Was it fair of me to judge my friends’ tastes negatively because they liked Hogan’s Heroes?

  1. Alastair John Archibald permalink

    I have stopped using adverbs almost completely in prose, preferring to describe what could be observed in the scene and letting the reader discern what is going on. My last book only has adverbs in dialogue.

    • Writing a book without any adverbs might be an interesting endeavor. Some guy wrote a book without using the letter ‘e,’ so I guess it’s possible to not use an adverb. Some adverbs are sneaky, though.

  2. A lot of paper-back writers of that era sh*t those out bi-weekly for a paycheck. Most who didn’t take it seriously and didn’t want to be associated with “inferior writing” used a nom de plume.

  3. All of those adverbs follow the word “said.” I think they don’t work because they are too late, the dialogue has already been read. Now the reader has to backtrack to the what’s already been read and modify how they read it. That makes for clunky reading.

    • Alastair J. Archibald permalink

      I agree, I always put “X said” dialogue tags at the beginning when they’re unavoidable. My favourite trick to get round dialogue tags is to preface dialogue with an action, e.g. “Jane frowned. “That’s not what he told me.””

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